I started the Gervais / MacLeod series on February 19, 2013, and there’s one miss on my part that has been bugging me. Namely, I failed to flesh out the concept of the Technocrat except in moral terms. Technocrats were the “good Sociopaths”, the people who combined strategic intelligence, dedication, and a lack of respect for authority but whose drive and talents brought them to good places, not bad. This moralistic correlation exists (as a correlation, not a universal rule) but it’s not the fundamental nature of the Technocrat to be good. There’s something that makes them tend to be good, but not all are.
Over time, I’ve found this categorization to be problematic. The lower MacLeod tiers (Losers and Clueless) don’t carry a moral weight, so who am I to split the upper one (Sociopaths) between “good” and “bad” ones? Recently, however, I think I’ve discovered the tool that separates the two sets. It isn’t about morality per se but about something that often overlaps with it: whether a person is a state-seeker or a truth-seeker.
What’s a state-seeker? And what’s a truth-seeker?
Abstractly, almost everyone sees himself as a truth-seeker. Before I’ve even defined the terms, I’m pretty sure that most people have put themselves in this category. I disagree. Most people– probably 80 percent– are state-seekers. Also, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. As humans, we’re built to be state-seekers. When I explain what each means, that will become pretty obvious.
State-seekers use what social resources and power they have or can acquire to bring human arrangements to desirable states. Truth-seekers want to bring them to truthful ones. Obviously, most people want both; so it doesn’t get interesting until those two goals conflict. Here are a couple of examples:
- Andrea manages a team of five workers who’ve all been with her for fifteen years. It’s a tight-knit crew. Four of her workers are great, but Bob has become ineffective and toxic to the rest of the group. Everyone agrees that they’d be better off with Bob out of the mix, but no one wants to see him, personally, fired. They’ve known him for too long, met his kids, et cetera. If Andrea’s a state-seeker, she’ll try to isolate Bob and minimize the damage, but she “can’t fire him” because he’s been with the team for too long. If she’s a truth-seeker, she’ll fire him– preferably fairly, with severance and a good reference to recognize the time when he was valuable, and to help him bounce to a better job– because Bob really isn’t part of the team anymore, and firing him is the only truthful thing to do.
- Carol has aspirations to be a film actor. If she’s a state-seeker, her primary concern will be getting in and “becoming” a movie star. How does she get a good agent? How does she make the contacts? If she’s a truth-seeker, she’ll be more interested in whether she should be a movie star, and constantly assessing whether she has the talent (as well as whether the Hollywood game is worth playing).
Now, it might seem strange to consider how I presented truth- and state-seekers. State-seekers want desirable social arrangements, and truth-seekers want correct ones. What good, however, is an undesirable truth? The answer is not obvious. There’s a strong argument that can be made, in many circumstances, for concealing undesirable truths. That is, in fact, what most people (again, the state-seeking ~80 percent) will reflexively prefer to do. Isn’t a bit perverse to seek the truth beyond what’s socially acceptable? Well, often it’s not popular to be that way. That’s why most people aren’t truth-seekers. It’s a lonely road. State-seeking is easier, more harmonious, and less risky.
The truth-seeker’s problem is that she never fully buys into the going assumptions about what’s desirable. Can the group really evaluate what’s best for it, in the long term? Can she do that? How confident should she be in her knowledge? She might want to be a movie star, but if she lacks basic talent for it, that simply would make no sense. Truth-seekers are too skeptical of what arrangements are considered desirable (knowing such things are prone to fashion) by that group and in that time to sacrifice accuracy and honesty. On the whole, they’d rather have correctness and knowledge than comfort and harmony. The truth-seeker’s distrust for her own assumptions now about what is desirable leads her to prefer truth, so that she can make better decisions in the future, even if her presumptions about social desirability prove to be wrong.
Does this mean that truth-seekers are morally superior? No. In fact, there are plenty of honest state-seekers who dislike lying because it feels disrespectful, aggressive, or malignant. There are also dishonest truth-seekers, who are either too incompetent to crack their own self-deceptions, and there are others (although this is rare) who are masterful at creating “new truths” that serve them, and creating a “reality distortion field” in which those are now true. Mad Men‘s Don Draper (the most honest whore in the whorehouse) comes to mind. What makes him an attractive presence is that– unlike the social climbers around him, those being obvious state-seekers out for self-advancement– he is a truth-seeker. He wants to get the right answer, do the best possible work, and put all the bullshitters in their place. However, he’s not perfectly honest, given that the real Don Draper died before most of the events in the show, and also considering that he thrives in a fundamentally dishonest business (advertising, or exploiting human weaknesses for profit).
Finally, if I were to make a bet on it, I’d bet that most people consider themselves to be truth-seekers, but I don’t think they are. State-seekers, when presented with a classification of human behavior, tend often to associate themselves with what they want to be. Truth-seekers tend to know what they are. I suspect that most state-seekers would self-identify as truth-seekers; but I could be wrong.
What do state-seekers want?
I’ve discussed truth-seekers and their desire to get the right answer, egos and emotions be damned. People tend to find truth-seekers to be robotic, overly analytical, and insensitive. In fact, these accusations tend often to be true of us. We aren’t the most sensitive to others. We’d rather be right. This isn’t because we’re egotistical (some of us are; but as a group, I don’t think we’re worse than baseline) but because we consider deception and the propagation of inaccuracy to be harmful to all parties involved.
State-seekers tend to fall along a spectrum with two endpoints: altruistic and egoistic state-seekers. Altruistic state-seekers want group harmony. They want people to be happy, groups to be inclusive, and conflict to be rare and easily resolved. They’re rarely dishonest, but not because they have an intellectual commitment to the truth; rather, because they understand the damage that discovered untruths bring to the social fabric. They tend to lie only when they’re very confident that the lie will never be uncovered. Egoistic state-seekers tend to want self-advancement. These are the narcissists and psychopaths and assholes we all know and love.
Most people are state-seekers somewhere between those extremes; they tend toward moral neutrality and, as I discussed in previous posts in this series, localism. They aren’t universal altruists or degenerate egoists; they tend to operate in the interest of a small group.
With humanity divided into two sets according to a certain behavioral bias– the relative favor given to truth versus desirable social states– I am also going to address ambition, and that I’m going to split into three levels or categories.
- Subsocial. People with subsocial levels of ambition do not threaten or upset others with their goals. In fact, most people would rather see them be more assertive. To make it clear, the “sub-” prefix does not mean that such people are “unsocial” or defective in any way. I am saying that their level of ambition is below (hence “sub”) the upper limit of social acceptability (the “at-social” threshold). They don’t make any enemies.
- At-social. In the middle are people whose ambition levels are right at the level of social acceptability: probably somewhere around the 85th percentile for women and the 90th for men. They’re seen as “go-getters” and “team players”. They are driven enough to garner respect, but not so assertive as to draw negative stereotypes upon themselves. They live right at the socially acceptable maximum. This is rarely a pleasant place to be (hence the stigma of the MacLeod Clueless) because the at-social level of ambition has a person showing enough drive to suffer, but not enough to break ahead of the pack.
- Aposocial. At this level, the person’s ambition has gone beyond what’s considered polite or socially acceptable. The aposocial person may work so hard that people suspect he “doesn’t have a life”. Or he may not work especially hard (MacLeod Sociopath) but will simply do things to accomplish his goals that others find objectionable. Some aposocial people are very good, morally speaking, and some are bad; but they’re rarely nice in either case.
We now have six categories of people. I’ll address how each one interacts with the MacLeod hierarchy.
- Subsocial state-seekers tend to be the more popular and active of the MacLeod Losers. They like the comfort of an in-crowd, and form their own clubs (e.g. Finer Things Club) and events (e.g. office parties) although those are rarely consequential. In general, they aim for group harmony, and tend to go out of their way to be accommodating and nice to people. However, they can also be parochial and vicious (see: Angela in The Office).
- Subsocial truth-seekers are the rationally disengaged. They do not give more to the organization than, based on how it treats them, it deserves. This means that they tend to be minimum-effort players who generally understand the organization well and what is required to succeed in it, but rarely consider it worth it to chase that carrot; it’s too small and too far away. In The Office, Creed is the ultimate subsocial truth-seeker. Subsocial truth-seekers are a different set of MacLeod Losers: they know exactly what’s going on, but lack the drive to win the game.
- At-social state-seekers are people who evolve into the MacLeod Clueless. Sometimes, it’s because they want to lead or hold power; other times, it’s because they’re driven to do what’s best for the group. Now, at-sociality generally isn’t very truthful because it entails having just enough ambition to suffer (in many cases, on a supervisor’s or group’s behalf) but not quite enough to get ahead. The self-deception of an at-social state-seeker tends toward contagion sometimes, which makes him a natural match for Clueless middle-management.
- At-social truth-seekers are incredibly rare, because the at-social level of ambition is so awkward and often unsustainable for a truth-seeker. I guess the label I would affix to them is “TED Speakers”. They are genuinely earnest in seeking the truth, but not aggressive enough about it to do anything that would compromise their popularity. They tend to have an optimistic conviction that social desirability/acceptability and truth are almost never in conflict, while I would argue that they (as a group) underestimate how often such conflict does occur. They are earnest when it comes to truth-seeking, but not as aggressively as the “ninja” aposocial truth-seekers. They’re almost never the first to uncover socially unacceptable truths; but they’re good at marketing such discoveries once a small set of “early adopters” have accepted them.
- Aposocial state-seekers are people whose drive to push a social state toward a desired outcome is often found unnatural or even perverse. That is, their state-seeking goes far beyond what is socially acceptable (hence “aposocial”). The altruistic ones are seen as rabble-rousers and radicals. The egoistic ones are seen as sociopathic cutthroat menaces (which most of them are). These are the classical MacLeod Sociopaths who make organizations succeed (i.e. bring them to more desired states) in spite of themselves.
- Aposocial truth-seekers are the ones whose desires to get to the right answer, similarly, drive them to places far away from the socially accepted comfort zone. They don’t shy away from unpopular truths; they dive right in. They’ll burn ass to get the right answer, make an organization the best it can be, and not only solve the problem but solve it well. Popularity and social harmony are often sacrificed wholesale in the quest for absolute truth and excellence.
Whither into morality?
Nothing about the six categories above is strictly moral. There’s a diversity in ambition level and favoritism of state versus truth, and none of this requires or precludes moral decency. In fact, there are good and bad people in all six categories. However, are there correlations between category and morality? In general, I’d say the answer to that is “Yes”.
On the ambition spectrum, subsocial people tend to map to the MacLeod Loser tier, regardless of whether they favor truth- or state-seeking; and at-social people tend to fall into the Clueless tier. Whether a person favors truth or state does not seem to have a major effect, for these tiers, on how people behave or where they land in a social hierarchy. When people operate within the bounds of social acceptability, it just doesn’t matter much what they favor. When people restrict themselves (as most people do) to the sandbox of social acceptability, it doesn’t matter much what they try to build, because there just isn’t much sand to work with.
Indecent people at the subsocial or at-social levels of ambition certainly do local damage. They bruise egos, cause unjust firings, and reduce operational efficiency. However, they don’t seem to have vicious macroscopic effects except in already-reeling organizations (that have been brought to that state by higher-level malignancy or negligence). They aren’t, in general, going to bring critical failures to the organization. Likewise, morally decent people at the subsocial and at-social ambition levels cannot save a company that has fallen into indecency at the aposocial level, because they will almost never shatter the distorted reality that their superiors have created.
Thus, the interesting play happens at the aposocial level. Not only history, but the more mundane ticking of organizational evolution, tend to be driven by people whose ambitions exceed the socially acceptable; those whose drive makes them inherently non-redundant.
State-seekers tend to evolve into Politicians. I choose this word in favor over “Sociopath” because I don’t think they’re all bad, and the world needs politicians. There are plenty of deeply kind, honest, and also aposocial people who tend to be state-seekers. Why? Well, truth is often unkind to peoples’ immediate sensitivities, and it’s a defensible moral stance (if very different from how I, personally, tend to operate) that it is better for people to be happy than for them to be fully informed of the truth in a situation (since many truths are painful but provide no actionable information).
It’s the aposocial truth-seekers who evolve into the Technocrats. It’s probably extremely obvious at this point that they are one and the same. Most Technocrats are good people; but it is not a hard-and-fast guarantee. Still, the odds are strong that a randomly-selected Technocrat will not only be morally decent (which most people are, except in perverse contexts) but so committed to decency as to be genuine organizational assets. You want these guys (and girls) on your team. However, it’s rare that you can get by with having only Technocrats at the aposocial level of ambition. Why? In poker terminology, they tend to play the cards extremely well but not the people. Their relentless pursuit of truth, in fact, blinds them to human irrationality and the pervasive power of ego. I’d like to think that a Technocrat-only organization could work, but I doubt that such a thing could scale (as a functioning company) into the general population.
What about the Politicians? Are they good or bad, in general, as a group? It’s hard to tell. There are good, altruistic leaders among them who manage to create order out of human disarray and thereby drive a set of people to achieve more, in coordination, than it otherwise would. There are also myriad degenerate social-climbers, dishonest deal-makers, and outright criminals in that set. What determines the type of Politicians an organization gets is what that organization stands for. That is, I would argue, the fundamental issue with corporate capitalism. These corporations, in fact, stand for nothing. Their only purpose is to grow in footprint, make more money (which is then dispensed, unevenly and according to political forces, to executives) and take over a larger segment of the economy. There are, of course, plenty of organizations not geared toward that; but the general state of a large private-sector organization is one so hogtied by sectarian in-fighting and bike-shedding that the only “common language” left is profit maximization. This creates an uninspiring place to work, but also one whose leaders reflect its own values: greed über alles.
This brings head-first into a moral debate I haven’t yet resolved: is greed good? The answer is far from simple. Aposocial ambition is often seen in the best people, but is that greed? Or does “greed” only denote material aspiration, which we tend to understand as necessary at low levels of material wealth but pathological at high levels (with no agreement whatsoever among people about where that transition lives)? I’m not going to tackle that question in its entirety. There’s good greed and bad greed, and it would take another essay to flesh that out. I will say this much. Once companies have become short-term profit-maximizers, with cultural health and employee morale downplayed, the type of ambition that tends to be rewarded in individuals is the empty kind– the unconditional work ethic, the need for “a leadership role” despite any coherent cause to lead– and that’s bad. When it’s empty ambition that gets a person promoted (and it often is, because managers prefer the unconditional work ethic that comes along with it) the company will, over time, be handed over to the worst kind of Politicians, the ones truly deserving the “Sociopath” label.
It takes aggressive truth-seekers (Technocrats) to unseat such people and reverse their damage, but those very Technocrats are often the first ones shot down in the typical fire-at-will American corporation.